December 16, 2011 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society
It’s one of the most famous and widely shared pieces of music in history.
Handel intended his oratorio “Messiah” for Lent, and it was first performed just after Easter 1742. But over the centuries, public performances of the masterwork became a rite of Christmas.
It is 270 years since Handel composed the classic, yet crowds continue to gather and listen, once again, for hours. Today’s audiences typically reserve that kind of time for a Lady Gaga concert or the opening of a new “Mission Impossible” movie.
What explains the enduring attraction of Handel’s “Messiah?”
For one thing, the sheer beauty of the music. For another, the incredible skill of the composer. In one of history’s most astounding creative feats, Handel produced the 260-page score in just 24 days.
Beethoven—whose Ninth Symphony’s final movement (“Ode to Joy”) rivals the Hallelujah Chorus of “Messiah” for widespread emotional appeal—is said to have revered Handel as the greatest of composers.
The lasting popularity also owes to the work’s moving text, drawn from the Bible. From prophecy to incarnation to death and resurrection, the life of Christ has been called the greatest story ever told. Indeed, Leland Ryken and other Christian literary scholars have noted how the narrative qualities of biblical revelation are finely tuned to the way we’re made as humans.
Together, the music and subject of Handel’s “Messiah” reach the sublime status of great art that speaks to “what is permanent in the human soul,” as the 19th-century poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold wrote. No wonder we love to hear it at Christmas, the time of year that calls us back to the permanent things.
Master artists and authors create a “unity and profoundness of moral impression,” Arnold wrote, “which constitutes the grandeur of their works, and which makes them immortal.”
That kind of moral impression is grounded in the conviction that human nature persists, truth exists and life has meaning and purpose. Such courage of conviction has been waning for some time.
A century ago, the great English writer G. K. Chesterton diagnosed that “what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place.” Modesty used to rein in our ambition; it shifted to constrain conviction, “where it was never meant to be.”
Things haven’t improved since Chesterton’s time. Today’s radical postmodernist academics teach young people there is no universal human condition or transcendent morality. Reality is culturally determined, they say, a mere social construct erected by personal background and identity. This relativism leaves some philosophers skeptical about the nature of rationality and truth altogether.
To be sure, experience does influence our perspective on reality. Whether a child grows up in Bedford Falls or Berkeley or Bahrain will shape her outlook. So will racial, socioeconomic and religious characteristics. Just as eyeglasses are shaped by a sanding process, many factors grind the lens through which each of us sees reality.
But it remains a lens. It does not change reality itself.
Great art helps continue to refine and polish that lens with accounts of truth that transcend our own outlooks.
Wise voices across generations have urged a perennial return to classic works to gain perspective on our age and experience. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes,” C.S. Lewis explained. We need to read “old books,” he said, to correct the blind spots of our day.
Lewis didn’t idealize the past, though.
“People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes,” he wrote. “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”
The well-aged insights of great works of art, literature and music help us sift today’s culture, as Arnold explained, to identify what will “cultivate what is best and noblest” in us as human beings.
Plenty of entertainment will lose its popularity long before the end of the century—if not the decade. But great works endure because they appeal to universal longings of the human spirit.
Nearly three centuries since its debut, crowds continue to gather for Handel’s “Messiah” because the stunning crescendos and familiar choruses draw us toward answers to “the hopes and fears of all the years.”
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and author of the book “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.”
First moved on the McClatchy Tribune Wire service